Rod McPhee: Gay marriage - is it a case of careful what you wish for?

Does the gay population need its own word for marriage? PIC: Guzelian

Does the gay population need its own word for marriage? PIC: Guzelian

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Right, from the off can I just state quite clearly: I think that gay marriage is, in the overall sweep of things, the right way to go and I’m pleased the commons this week voted for change.

But can I also make clear the fact that this is still far from a black and white argument, an adversarial stand off between liberals and bigots.

I kind of get the argument that a ‘marriage’ could be solely defined as a union between a man and a woman. Sorry, I know that isn’t a terribly fashionable thing to say, but in my mind we already use different words to describe people based on the people involved. If we didn’t then gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual or trans would have no meaning.

So why can’t the highest union between a man and a woman only be known as marriage? Yes, you could argue that there’s no need to make a distinction, but then why do we use titles to distinguish between people every day? The answer is that it’s not only easier but it heightens our sense of identity. It is not, necessarily, about discrimination, just distinction.

And isn’t that what equality is about: not having to surrender your distinctive characteristics to gain equal treatment?

This may sound like a ridiculous semantic argument, but words hold enormous symbolism here. If they didn’t then most of society, including many gay and lesbian people, would be content with civil partnerships.

In fact, I think a lot of people who are already in civil partnerships might feel that way, which makes me wonder whether this week’s victory might not have been more hollow than we realise.

I can’t help but wonder what the general consensus among the gay population is. How crucial did they see the change? And among the heterosexual population, did they really care that much?

Either way, my point is this: might a better way forward been to have created an institution virtually identical to marriage but give it a different name? You know, like a President, Premiere or Taoiseach - they are all different words representing slightly different roles, but essentially they amount to the same thing.

If we had adopted a similar approach to the issue of marriage then gay, lesbian and straight people would, as I’ve already said, be different, but equal. Remember, when it comes to marriage we are talking about an institution created and named by straight people. Have gay and lesbian people actually been asked what they’d like their union to be called? Because the empowerment of choosing their own terms of reference (For example, gay instead of homosexual or some other unkind title) is crucial here.

It would also challenge the suspect arguments put forward by religious leaders about not wishing to partake in changing the definition of marriage. If the government turned around and said: “Ok, so how about you participate in this new institution on a par with, but not actually, marriage?” Then society could really call their bluff - and I think they’d be caught out.

But as things turned out some people may feel that marriage is no longer unique for heterosexuals in the same way as gay people now have the option of entering an institution that’s no longer cherished the way it used to be.

After all, there’s a reason why fewer and fewer straight people are tying the knot. As comedian Bill Hicks said of gays in the military “Anyone dumb enough to wanna be in, should be allowed in.”

Which is why, as I stated at the start, I’m in favour of recognising the concept of gay people getting married if that’s what a sizeable number of people in Britain want.

I’m just not sure they do.